Power Causes Brain Damage

“Power – a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies” – Henry Adams

Power is like the weather:

  • Everyone likes it when it’s comfortable, warm and makes them feel good; but
  • More often than not it’s lousy and something everyone complains about but can do little about; and
  • In small and well-controlled doses it can leverage life, progress, and added value; but
  • In heavy doses, like hurricanes and tornadoes, it causes immediate and either highly focused or widespread damage, or both.

That’s generally what happens to us when someone else has power. But what happens to them?

The Atlantic ran an article recently that confirmed what we all probably knew before hand – Power Causes Brain Damage. If you can’t read it, the following is a brief overview, followed by more thoughts.

After years of lab and field experiments on people’s behaviors, Professor Dacher Keltner from UC Berkeley reached a conclusion not far from Henry Adams metaphorical quip. Subjects under the influence of power (i.e., wielding it for long periods) behaved as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury. They had become

  • more impulsive,
  • less risk-aware, and most importantly,
  • less adept at seeing things from other people’s perspective.

In different studies, Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University in Ontario, looked at subject’s brains. He observed that power impairs a specific neural process, “mirroring,” that may be a cornerstone of empathy (the ability to relate to what others are feeling).

These and other results give a neurological basis for what Keltner called the “Power Paradox”:

  • Once we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place.

Powerful people “stop simulating the experience of others,” leading to what is called an “empathy deficit.”

(Blog: In other words, they become clueless. To say nothing of dangerous and potentially destructive.)

Had power people become so task focused that they made little effort to empathize with others? In a subsequent study people were informed what “mirroring” was and instructed to make a conscious effort to increase or decrease their response to others. Results? “No difference.” Effort didn’t help.

This leads to Power Paradox #2:

  • Knowledge is supposed to be power, but what good is knowing that if power deprives you of knowledge?

A sunny spin on this is that these changes are only “sometimes” harmful. Power, according to research, primes our brain to screen out peripheral information. That is, to increase our “task” focus, which in itself generally reduces our “relationship” focus where empathy is most necessary.

In being heavily “task” focused, “power lessens the need for a nuanced read of others, since it gives us command of resources we once had to cajole from others.”

“Less able to make out people’s individuating traits, they (power people) rely more heavily on stereotype. And the less they’re able to see, other research suggests, the more they rely on a personal “vision” for navigation.”

One issue is that many people regard power as a post or a position rather than a mental state. If regarded as a post or a position that comes with certain perks, this makes Taker behaviors all the more justifiable.

If power is recognized as a mental state, then the choice to exercise that power depends more upon the situation and available information and less on it being a “permanent” or entitled behavior.

The latter is referred to as “Hubris Syndrome” – “a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success (Blog: or perceived success), held for a period of years and with minimal constraint on the leader.” It has 14 clinical features, but the most interesting are

  • manifest contempt for others;
  • loss of contact with reality;
  • restless or reckless actions; and
  • displays of incompetence

Now consider the following thoughts …

Unfortunately, while the medical literature does not yet recognize Hubris Syndrome, I suspect that the majority of us have all lived through some manifestation of it.

Apparently, the longer someone is under the influence of power, the further left on the Behavior Curve they unconsciously move, exhibiting Taker behaviors much more often. In addition, the screening out of supposed “peripheral” information increases the amount of Missing Information, some of which can be critically important. By screening out potential course corrective information, the further left on the curve they move.

Nature With Nurture

While our five forces of Nature (genes (DNA) & temperament) working with Nurture (environment, triggers, and chance, all influenced by inanimate and/or human forces (choices)) play a significant role, there is a certain pattern of power that emerges:

  • A person observes power being exercised by someone and the effects that it brings;
  • It is assumed that power is something tangible to be acquired, primarily by position and/or title;
  • It is also assumed that power is a chip in a zero-sum game: if someone wins, others must lose;
  • Power is thus something to be seized;
  • Because you seized or acquired it, your vision must be the correct one;
  • Once acquired, power is like muscle, it must constantly be used or become atrophied;
  • The point of having power is therefore to use it, demonstrating that you have it;
  • By exercising it, you keep it in shape to be used when necessary; and
  • You need to keep it stronger than other power around you.

One can see where power viewed in this way becomes a tumor, controlling behavior in order to feed itself.

It might just be that accepting the adage that Knowledge is Power is incorrect if not misleading. Perhaps the adage itself is incorrect.

Knowledge, if we remember from a previous post, results from organizing Information. Knowledge must still be processed to become Understanding, which must then be practiced to become Wisdom, which is when the benefits are realized. Unfortunately, due to the very real human attributes of the Availability Heuristic and Confirmation Bias, we are constantly in danger of slipping from Wisdom back down to Mere Knowledge, an effect we can call Understanding Erosion. When “exercised,” Mere Knowledge can take on the aspects of a ritual response or a recipe, exhibiting this loss of mental capacities, including the ability and desire to read other people.

What is possibly a strong driving force for this behavior is fear. Since the power holder climbed up the mountain to attain a position of power, he/she knows that someone else behind them is also climbing up the mountain. What one obtained can be lost, or even worse, taken.

There is nothing worse than a Taker who fears being taken – The Fear of getting Mugged and losing power.

It is for these reasons that I suspect that the adage Knowledge is Power is at least incorrect if not misleading. If we must associate an adage with position or title, things that are possessed, then a better one would be

  • Knowledge is only temporary power

Process, not just knowledge

If we accept the concept that power is a mental state, then much broader opportunities open up:

  • Power as a mental state implies that there is more focus on the process necessary to reach understanding on how and when to exercise it;
  • Process involves recognizing that important information is very likely missing and responding to that fact;
  • Process thus involves engaging with others who may have insight and/or the desired information. This requires empathy, a strong Emotional Quotient, the recognition and management not only of your own emotions but the ability to read and appropriately respond to others;
  • Process also involves situational awareness, when to act, how to act, and how strongly to act. This directly implies the option not to act or to wait, without losing any power;
  • Process also includes recognizing that the best outcome is a careful mix of both task and relationship.

This provides a much more powerful (sorry) adage:

  • Knowledge with Process is sustainable power

This is a freeing concept. Power is no longer some thing one possesses and gets mugged and loses. It become who you are, what you do that achieves outcomes above and beyond yourself.

It cannot be lost or taken away. It is part of who you are.

It is no longer something that must be exercised to accomplish goals and objectives, it becomes something that can be invoked to influence circumstances and motivate people such that not only are goals and objectives achieved, but people are developed (their individual “cultures”) and healthy organizational culture is strengthened.

So, is power a tumor, the result of a Taker’s Fear of Being Mugged?

Or is it the result of a Giver’s enhanced mental state?

Since we are all agents of influence and have a choice, which would you choose?

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About Jim Edmonds

I am a husband, father, mentor, who once was a chemist turned physicist turned marketer turned executive turned missionary turned professor. And survived it all.
This entry was posted in 04: Games People Play, 06: Incomplete Information, 12: Character, 14: Behavior, 16: Culture, 17: Choice, Career and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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